Joe Wilson- I am today talking to the former President of the National Union of Journalists who has been appointed to the Unitarian Church in East Lancashire. South African born Rev Jim Corrigall is the new minister at the Nazareth Unitarian Chapel in Padiham where he has already met his new parishioners and today he takes his first service at his other church which is Rawtenstall Unitarian Church. What also separates Jim from the rest is that he is a former Atheist. We are going to meet Jim in three parts today in the first part Jim talks about his early life, and let’s face it a quite distinctive accent.
Jim -“I was born and brought up in South Africa and educated there and had my first couple of jobs in South Africa, but came to Britain a long time ago, 1974, and I have lived in Britain ever since.”
Was it always journalism for you – you are a journalist aren’t you by original profession?
“I did a little bit of teaching of English, particularly when I first came to London, and I had done a little bit of that in South Africa, but journalism was pretty much my profession from the beginning.”
I want to talk to you a little more about your journalism and your thoughts about the press a little later. Let me also ask you about your faith as well because a lot has been made that originally you were an atheist?
“Yes, I grew up in an agnostic household. My parents were agnostic, they were not anti-religion at all they were great human rights activists, and I grew up in an anti-apartheid household in South Africa. My father died when I was quite young and I went to a Church of England school, so I had that, where we used to have Chapel every morning, so I had that background. When I left school, I regarded myself as an atheist. I was involved in anti-apartheid campaigning with Christians while at University but I myself felt that I could not believe.”
Just let me make this distinction between an agnostic and an atheist. My understanding being that an atheist does not believe in God while an agnostic believes that something is there, something around you, there is a spirituality somewhere but they don’t know what it is, they are not certain what it is and they don’t want to come down on any one particular form of spirituality that is brought to them – is that about right?
“I think that is about right, I would say that I probably veered between being an agnostic and an atheist at different times depending on how I was feeling. I would regard myself as not religious. I could not believe in any kind of what I saw as supernatural beings – God – for most of my life. I suppose sometimes I would have described myself as agnostic and sometimes and atheist.”
Just to touch briefly on the apartheid situation. You were in South Africa you were anti-apartheid. Was that an easy thing to be in those days because I could imagine it was quite difficult, especially if you were white?
“Our family were raided by the security police on a number of occasions. We had a certain amount of harassment. I later came to Britain on a passport but when I tried to renew it after a couple of years they would not renew it and I eventually got refugee status and lived with that status for a few years and later -- on the basis of marriage to my wife, who was British born British,I became a British citizen.”
Was it fair to say you fled South Africa?
“No because I left on a passport, but I was involved in some anti-apartheid activity in Britain and when I tried to renew my shortly-to-be expired passport in London, they refused to renew it. This was the South African Embassy in London – they basically said this will be referred to Pretoria and they refused to renew it.”
So it was in their gift?
Absolutely, it was in their gift, of course, it was a South African passport.
You moved on and you came to stay in Britain and you sort of got the inklings that you would quite like to be a journalist.
Yes, indeed, I took up journalism again really. I worked on a series of papers in London. I worked on various Third World and Africanmagazines, in fact, I worked in Zimbabwe for nearly five years with my family in the 1980’s for The Herald newspaper out there. I was a sub-editor for many years, came back to Britain and was fortunate to, by this time I was a British citizen, get a job with the BBC World Service because of my foreign, overseas, African experience, and I spent a very happy 17 years there as a journalist in the newsroom but I also made some features and documentaries.”
Second part of interview -
How did you find Christ?
“I think I was coming to a stage when I was feeling – is this all there is to life, is this all there is? --my work, my family, my trade union activities – all gave me some fulfilment but I felt somehow: was there anything more? It seemed to me that in terms of meaning in life – was there anything beyond this?, and I think it was those nagging thoughts that got to me in the end, and I started to feel that I wanted to explore my own spirituality which I had never really done before. I had, from an early age, loved nature and the world around me and had some extraordinary experiences in the natural world. I also loved poetry. I had studied English at University and I had always read poetry and enjoyed it a great deal, in fact particularly religious poetry, although I still regarded myself as an agnostic or atheist. Somehow these came together where I felt I wanted to explore this dimension more and that led me to various searches on the web. Eventually to the Unitarian Church which had an open attitude towards spirituality. They were very keen to welcome me, even if I said: ‘I am not sure I believe in God but I want to explore’, and they encouraged me to explore and I joined a Unitarian Church in North London where I lived. I did explore Sufism, different kinds of spirituality and religion. Eventually I came to feel that I needed to be grounded in a faith and I explored the liberal Christian path and found it could provide me with a faith that I felt sustained me. I still had enormous problems with the whole concept of God, but I came to see that God was not something ‘out there’,not an object out there, but rather perhaps the Spirit … within and without – the force that animates me, you and all of us.”
The fact that you do not have an ordination, and the fact that you do not believe in the Holy Trinity, some people in Christian circles would say that you yourself are not a Christian – you are a man of faith they have no problem with you at all, but they don’t see you if you like as being a fully paid-up member of the Christian community because of these difficulties. What do you say to that because that has been an issue in this part of the world before now?
“I would say it’s not strictly accurate because our faith is a free one, we are a creedless faith. It’s perfectly possible actually to believe in the Trinity and be a member of my Church.”
Do you believe in the Trinity then?
“No I don’t, but I find it a very powerful metaphor in which I am able to work, so I am very comfortable with the Trinity – I don’t have a problem with it. And I myself am very ecumenical in my outlook. I believe in working with other Churches and that is the practice that I have brought to my ministry and hope to continue with -- although I am also keen to work with other faiths in an inter-faith context as well. But it is perfectly possible to believe in the Trinity within our Church because the basis of our Church is that it is a free faith rather than strictly and only Unitarian, although, of course, most of our members have problems with the full Trinitarian formulations of the main Church. But many of our people would in fact, as with the Unitarians in Transylvania for example, the oldest Unitarian Church in the world, would believe very strongly in the Spirit -- as some manifestation of God -- but certainly they would believe in the Spirit.”.........
Third part of interview:
Jim is looking forward to his time in Lancashire.
“It's great to be up here, I’ve never lived in Lancashire before – I’ve barely ever been up before. I am really enjoying getting to know the folk here and look forward hopefully to doing a good job as a Minister here.”
You are also looking to foster ecumenical relations and also to foster interfaith relations as well aren’t you?
“Very much so, that’s very much my priority, apart from my two congregations and communities, I want to really reach out to other faiths and other churches.”
Can I ask you also about your time as President as the National Union of Journalists and also your work as a journalist. You obviously take a keen interest in the media and journalism and what goes on. What do you make of the way in which the Churches, and by that I mean all Churches and faiths, are portrayed in the media – are you comfortable with what goes on there?
“Well I think it’soften rather a caricatured position that is portrayed. I mean on all kinds of things – African church leaders, they’re all homophobic and hate gays, for example. Whereas one of the great champions of liberalism has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu.On the whole, not just the Anglican church in South Africa but most of the churches in South Africa, have a liberal stance, as they do in many parts of Africa actually, but this again is rather lost in caricatures. That is just oneexample I think of the too-easy simplifications of religion, which I think apply equally in Britain. I think even the whole question of evangelical or liberal can be really misrepresented, because there are all kinds of interesting things going on in the church which get lost through too-easy labelling.”
But you get a good portrayal in the news -- could we have more perhaps of views from faith communities when there is a major new story?
“I think that absolutely we could. Of course another clear example of caricaturing is in regard to Muslims and the Islamic faith, which can be much too easily caricatured. I think the media often try hard not to, but of course, there are examples of where negative stereotyping takes place and I think the media could play a much better role in this in helping people throughout society -- religious and non-religious -- to understand faith and faiths better.”
Need people like you be worried about people like me in the sense I am a journalist and I sit here in your house and I wonder whether sometimes I go into people’s homes and then go ....I don’t know what he’s going to say about us or I don’t know what he is going to do about us – we all think we come away thinking we have been as fair minded as we possibly could be. Probably bend over backwards to be fair minded, and yet people don’t perceive us that way do they? Do you, you are poacher turned gamekeeper?
“Yes, I am, but I generally feel, you trust the journalist. I’m a BBC person, I worked for the BBC as well as newspapers, but I worked for the BBC, and generally I have a fair view of the BBC as being unbiased and trying to allow people to tell their story – so I would trust that would be the case with you .....
Trust me, you are in good hands! .... just one final thing – what would you envisage for your congregation over the next 12 months to two years – are there things you are trying to achieve, are there things that you would like to see happen?
“Well I would like to see some growth because, like many mainstream churches, we are experiencing a declinein younger people, particularly, attending -- and a decline in numbers.”
Can you halt that – is that halt-able?
“It's not easy, but I hope that by trying to be a vibrant congregation, trying to engage with people more broadly, trying to show that spirituality is something that can actually do something for people, that can engage people, interest them – if we can get that across, I hope that we can arrest the decline and hopefully perhaps even grow a bit.